Con-Dem Nation,  Labour Party

Kettle at the Kool-Aid

Martin Kettle has been drinking at the Kool Aid. At least that is one explanation for his gushing piece on David Cameron in The Guardian this morning (“A man of grace…”) . The Conservative leader is we are told a man full of courteous thank you notes, grace and charm.

In just two short months Kettle has concluded “Cameron is already proving to be a much better prime minister than Brown ever was”. This snap conclusion is given in the face of Conservative cuts and the fiasco over the school building’s programme. Not a mention of that here. Forget Chou En Lai and the French revolution (“too early to tell”).

Kettle’s praise of Cameron comes in near perfect contrast to his picture of Gordon Brown: a charmless and condescending Heathcliffian bruiser, a raging bull in the Chequers china shop. A failure in the thank you note department is the least of this crimes as the former prime minister is given no redeeming features.

There are criticisms aplenty to be made of Brown, but Kettle does him a disservice. He brushes over his achievements as chancellor and on the global stage. His success at the G20 in the financial crises for which he was widely praised.

Kettle chides us should we be tempted to think that Cameron’s slick PR charm as “nothing more than mere bourgeois triviality” as he homes in on Cameron’s speech to the Commons on the Bloody Sunday killings.

It was a model speech that “almost seemed to wash away 40 years of hurt”. Really that’s just too much. This is the same Kettle who last year wrote “The reality is that very few speeches change the political weather”. A line he wrote as he could not quite bring himself to fully praise Brown’s speech to the US Congress that colleague Jonathan Freedland called “the crowning moment in his [Brown’s] career”. Kettle thought there was plenty to mark down.

I wonder if that included Brown’s line about how “our society cannot be truly strong when millions are left so weak” – and set to be weaker still as it is widely agreed that that it is the poor who will suffer most at the hand’s of Cameron’s party.

He tell us that Cameron’s relationship with George Osborne is at the core of his strategy, but mentions nothing of the cuts and nothing of the news elsewhere in the Guardian today where we are told that the Office for Budget Responsibility slashed its forecasts for expected job losses from Osborne’s austerity package.

He praises Cameron for his work with Nick Clegg and what he has delivered for the Lib Dems (surely this is the other way around?), which unless I am wrong is a vote on a poor excuse for electoral reform and acquiescence in the budget cuts. Kettle concedes that Cameron “probably needs to do more” before rushing forward to write that “no alternative leader could have done it as well”.

“Cameron has not just taken to the realities of coalition better than any other Tory. He has also done it infinitely less condescendingly than Brown or any Labour leader would have done.”

Kettle’s theme is clear: Cameron is the best a man can get, the Carlsberg of party leaders, accept no substitute et cetera. He certainly doesn’t isn’t.

For Kettle Cameron is heading towards the centre ground and putting “liberal conservatism” at the heart of this government, but no reference to the Tory drive to force the free market on education and fund stronger schools as the expense of the weaker and disadvantaged. That drive is not being headed up by any wet behind the ears Con-liberal, but by Eurosceptic right-winger Michael Gove. Kettle doesn’t trouble himself with trying to square this circle.

The best, however, is saved for last as Kettle declares Cameron is “the best all-round prime minister of the modern era. Labour’s hopefuls should learn from him”. I can’t see what David Miliband could learn from Cameron, he is a conviction politician, full of ideas, passion and substance. I don’t see a lot of that in Cameron.

What is so unsettling about Kettle’s piece is that so much of what he praises is surface: the notes, the charm and good manners. And yes it is laudable surface, but it is not substance. Where Cameron is seen to lack substance he is quickly forgiven and even praised for it.

“You may counter that there have been missed opportunities, or that he was a key player in letting too much of the air out of the G20 – a forum in which Brown’s big thinking was missed – but at least he did not talk up his role.”

Is the reason Cameron did not talk up his role and missed opportunities because he has not “big thinking”?

While Kettle appeals to us not to think that Cameron’s courtesy is “bourgeois triviality” I can not help thinking that is all it is and that it is Kettle not us who has been tempted. Everything he points to is surface and spin and when it comes to the down and dirty issues of cuts and a right wing Thatcherite agenda then he ducks it.

No doubt there will be thank you note, fine in penmanship and heavy with praise, for such a fine letter of recommendation. It is well deserved.